Open Anthropology: Open Pedagogy, Accessibility, and Decolonization in the Discipline

Chapter image for Open Anthropology: Open Pedagogy, Accessibility, and Decolonization in the Discipline.
Authored by

Alyssa White

Anthropology, Co-Inquiry, and Open Pedagogy

As postsecondary institutions evolve towards greater inclusivity, accessibility, and diversity, open educational practices are an opportunity to address flaws in traditional learning design. Co-inquiry has always been central to anthropological research; the discipline’s main methodology of participant-observation positions interlocuters as critical collaborators in our fieldwork.

The importance of collaborative knowledge creation parallels the significance of co-inquiry in open pedagogical approaches that center students as active agents in their learning rather than just passive retainers of knowledge (DeRosa & Robinson 2017). My graduate research project is to design and build an open educational resource (OER) or the Anthropology Department. In this work, I will employ the collaboration and co-inquiry essential to open pedagogy. 

This approach to student learning has been demonstrated to improve engagement, support the development of critical thinking and research skills, and encourage authentic work (Hilton III et al. 2019; Sinkinson & McAndrew 2020).  However, through collaborating with students and faculty during the creation process, I have realized that open pedagogy is so much more than including students in research to improve their retention of course content. Open educational practices are a promising way to answer calls for accessibility, diversity, equity, and decolonization coming from within both anthropology and postsecondary education. In my work with students in the design of their education, I have encountered questions around access to knowledge production, dissemination of knowledge both within and outside of academia, and the impact of citational practices.

It is worth noting that my research began in response to student needs in the department and has developed alongside students for its entire duration. Students are considered the heart of open pedagogy; they are cited as both the motivation and the conduit for its occurrence (Wiley & Hilton, 2018). As I was conducting my preliminary research, I was surrounded by undergraduate students who were completing incredible independent research outside of structured classes. These independent studies were motivated by personal passion and curiosity and often filled gaps that scheduled classes did not address.

Yet, these projects rarely lasted beyond a single semester. Discussions with students led to an interesting realization: students wanted their work to matter. They did not want this research to just be read by a professor and then forgotten at the end of the semester. There was a strong desire for an enduring impact. It was clearly important that the OER centered this knowledge by having students positioned as collaborators rather than research subjects.

Working with students to build the OER, I have encouraged them to expand their roles beyond generating research by actively participating in decisions around the design, presentation, and implementation of their work.

Cover image of my introductory Anthropology OER. Image licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

This process has been just as critical as the research because providing them with the opportunity to make decisions about their research effectively shifted their experience from being a student completing an assignment to legitimate knowledge producer.

Involving Students: Decolonization and Accessibility

 Julisha Roache, Anthropology major and a key member of the OER team. Image licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

One student who has expressed a strong desire to engage in work that matters is Julisha Roache, an undergraduate Anthropology major. She has conducted research in multiple areas that have supported the development of the OER, including providing expertise on an area that does not receive enough attention in introductory anthropology classes: Black anthropology. The work of Black anthropologists has suffered from erasure in the discipline’s canon, often overshadowed by their white counterparts. Julisha created a piece for the OER about Black anthropologists that introduced students to these important figures and how citational practices have contributed to their erasure. When asked about her decision to research Black anthropologists, she said:

“I didn’t see myself in the discipline at the time. It’s a very white discipline. I want to know about the forgotten voices and the OER gives the opportunity to share it rather than working in contained spaces. This work is bigger than myself…highlighting these people who have been forgotten, or not acknowledged is an amazing opportunity.”

Julisha’s work is a great example of what can come from including students in the creation of educational resources. Paying attention to who is positioned as a legitimate source of knowledge because of our citational practices is important for supporting the decolonization of our curriculums (Ahmed 2013). By opening up who can produce legitimate forms of knowledge, we also broaden the possibilities of dissemination of knowledge in and beyond our institutions.

Open pedagogical approaches impact more than the student generating work. I learned about important disciplinary figures because of Julisha’s research, as did the introductory students who read her piece. Julisha’s work provided the opportunity for in-class discussions that encouraged reflection on citational practices, how they can lead to erasure, and the importance of diversifying who we cite as knowledge experts.

Introducing students to the idea that legitimate knowledge is not solely produced by high-ranked academics and does not only exist behind academic paywalls can support further decolonization of our institutions. As Julisha noted about her work with the OER “the fact that you have to pay for knowledge creates that separation and hierarchy that we see in academia. [The OER] is a way to actually address concerns in postsecondary in a practical way; rather than just talking about issues of access in a classroom, we’re expanding that access.” Discussing these ideas with the students also further improved my understanding of them and helped shape the way I addressed the OER.

The introductory students who engaged with initial drafts of the OER were also fundamental to its creation. While they were not actively contributing material to it, they were just as critical to the design of the OER. They provided direct feedback on how material supported their learning and the benefits and challenges of using a digital resource. This opened my eyes to concerns around the accessibility of educational resources.

Students provided important suggestions such as providing a PDF version to print for students who preferred physical copies for notetaking, adjusting font sizes, incorporating text-to-speech options, and further diversifying readings to avoid repetitiveness and encourage further engagement.

Having students directly communicate their needs around class readings allowed me to provide material that directly supported them in real-time and will benefit future iterations of the OER. These conversations with students also addressed another aspect of my research: how do we understand accessibility in postsecondary institutions, and how can open pedagogy be used to support students’ needs in our institutions? After receiving input from students, I understand accessibility as so much more than accommodations for students: it is about creating material that is inclusive and approachable. Feedback from students who are consuming knowledge from the OER has been just as critical to the design of the OER as contributions from students who are producing knowledge for it.

A word cloud generated by introductory Anthropology students

Involving Faculty: The Importance of Collaboration

While students are a large component of the creation process of the OER, faculty cannot be excluded from this process. Faculty have been key resources for creating connections with students, implementing the OER into a classroom setting, and providing feedback and support during the design. Librarians have provided critical support around copyright knowledge, providing the platform to create the OER and connecting me with individuals both within and outside of my institution who are also involved in open pedagogy. Faculty have also provided knowledge from their own research in the form of chapters for the OER.

Co-inquiry between students and faculty has been fundamental to the generation of original content for the OER. I am currently collaborating with a faculty member and several of the students he has supervised in independent studies to create an original chapter on medical anthropology, which also rarely receives enough coverage in introductory classes despite the growing demand for medical anthropologists.

Students have participated in interviews about their research to provide case studies, conducted their own interviews with other students and faculty, and collaborated with faculty to create a cohesive list of topics to be covered in the chapter. Even though a faculty member is guiding the creation of this chapter, the content created for it belongs just as much to the students. Julisha, who is also involved in this work, remarked that: “the opportunity to take hold of our own learning, to have work done for students, by students…we don’t normally get to see that in academia. Student choice is so important – we get to choose and share what we care about rather than profs choosing. I’ve also had opportunities for collaboration that you normally wouldn’t see with other undergrads, graduate students, alumni, and faculty. Collaboration is a really big benefit to this work.”

Open pedagogical approaches in the creation of our OER have enhanced both student and faculty experiences with knowledge production and provided an opportunity to flatten hierarchies in academia that are upheld by traditional ideas of expertise, paywalls, and prestige. Including students in the design process has been critical for opening up my own understanding of accessibility to include issues of decolonization and to question the boundaries on how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and used both within and beyond institutions.  Every voice included only expands on the perspectives, backgrounds, and knowledge in the OER, and will further enrich the resource as it continues to develop.

Reflective Questions

Who is typically considered appropriate to produce legitimate knowledge in postsecondary institutions? What systems have shaped this discourse? Who does it exclude?

Can you identify similar gaps discussed in this piece (ex: diverse authors) in the literature of your current classes or discipline? Why do you think those gaps exist?

What types of supports do students need when engaging in open pedagogy? What types of resources are helpful for navigating new assignment types or teaching practices?

What are the pros and cons of student-developed educational resources (such as the Black anthropology chapter written by Julisha)?

What are the pros and cons of students collaborating with faculty members to provide input on educational resources?

How do you define accessibility in education? What characteristics are important for making an educational resource accessible to students?


Ahmed, S. (2013). The Politics of Citation. Digital Feminist Collective. Retrieved from:

DeRosa, R. & Robinson, S. (2017). From OER to Open Pedagogy: Harnessing the Power of Open in Jhangiani R. & Biswas-Diener R. Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science (pp. 115-124). Ubiquity Press Ltd.

Hilton III, J., Wiley, D., Chaffee, R., Darrow, J., Guilmett, J., Harper, S. & Hilton, B. (2019). Student Perceptions of Open Pedagogy: An Exploratory Study. Open Praxis, 11(3), 275-288.

Sinkinson, C. & McAndrew, A. (2020). Approaching Open Pedagogy in Community and Collaboration. In K.D. Hoffman & A. Clifton. Open Pedagogy Approaches: Faculty, Library and Student Collaborations (pp. 42-56). Pressbooks.

Wiley, D. & Hilton, J. (2018). Defining OER-Enabled Pedagogy. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(4), 133-147.

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